Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The White Ribbon

I've seen all of Michael Haneke's movies that have been released in the U.S. since moving to NYC in 1997. To varying degrees I've liked them all. Even if they aren't great, they are all amazing visually. And I like the way he lets his stories slowly unfold - one layer at a time is revealed expertly. In fact, he and Pedro Almodovar might be the best directors today in this regard - both are expert storytellers.

Having seen most of Haneke's recent work, this one is by far my favorite. And it is the most different. It is the only one in black and white. It is the only one not set in modern times. And it is easily the quietest one. But that doesn't make it any less disturbing (in fact it's more disturbing) than a movie like The Piano Teacher or Funny Games (the original version).

The movie is about a small German town right before World War I. The parents are mean to the kids. There's incest. There's physical abuse. There's emotional abuse. And then bad things start happening in the town. The retarded village kid is taken to the woods and tortured. Someone ties a wire between two trees in the way of the town doctor who is seriously injured when his horse bucks him upon running into the wire. Another boy is taken to the woods and beaten.

Who is responsible for some of these awful acts? It is unclear but all signs point to the village kids. We do get to see the pastor's daughter (angry at her dad) take scissors to the family parrot. And there are other clues that the kids are responsible. But why?

This is the best kind of social message type film. Taken on its own, it is downright fascinating. As a treatise on some of the causes of World War II, it lends itself to hours of conversation. Like is the narrator/schoolteacher (telling the story from many years later) supposed to represent the Jews? What does the white ribbon that the pastor make his kids wear at all times to remind them to be pure represent? What about the denial of pretty much all of the town adults (other than the schoolteacher) that the kids might have anything to do with the events? This movie feels like a fever dream - but in a good way. This is a film that will be referenced for years and should be seen.

It feels completely original but it also reminded me of the crazy Germanness of The Tin Drum, the terrifying small villageness of Dogville, the scary kids of Children of the Corn, the messed up town folks with a secret vibe of Wicker Man, and the what's wrong with the kids vibe of Brand Upon the Brain. Brilliant.

Directed by Michael Haneke
Film Forum

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